Senator Henry Marsh's big day

Blogger Waldo Jaquith was at the Virginia State Capitol on Monday, January 21, when Republican senators passed a controversial redistricting bill. This is his account of the day.

Today was a big day for Senator Henry Marsh. The legislator of twenty years took a rare day off during the Virginia Senate’s 46-day session, to attend President Barack Obama’s second-term inauguration in Washington D.C. For the 79-year-old black civil rights lawyer, attending a black president’s inauguration on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is perhaps the most auspicious of occasions. Certainly nobody would object to him missing just one day. Looking at today’s legislative calendar, he would have seen that his absence wouldn’t be problematic, with nothing contentious on the agenda. (With the Senate split 50/50 between Democrats and Republicans, and with a Republican lieutenant governor acting as tie-breaker, that’s no small point.)

Marsh grew up under Jim Crow. He had a ten-mile round-trip walk to his one-room schoolhouse— an awfully long trip for a seven-year-old— while white kids took a bus to a modern school. Marsh didn’t let racism hold him back. He didn’t just graduate from primary school, but went on to college. When he was a senior at Virginia Union University, the Byrd Machine was organizing “massive resistance”— shutting down public schools rather than complying with Brown v. Board of Education— and Marsh got involved, testifying against the policy before the General Assembly. In doing so, he met famed civil rights attorney Oliver Hill. At Hill’s encouragement, he got a law degree from Howard University, and later went into private practice with Hill, focusing on civil rights law. Marsh and his practice were responsible for huge advances in civil rights over the decades, eliminating “separate but equal,” busing, and racial discrimination in hiring. Along the way he became the first black mayor of Richmond, and was elected to his Senate seat in 1991. Today he chairs the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission and created the Martin Luther King, Jr. Living History and Public Policy Center.

So it bears repeating: today was a very big day for Henry Marsh. He must have taken a great deal of satisfaction in seeing his life’s work culminate in the first black president’s reelection, and his being sworn in on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. It was a very, very good reason to miss a day’s session.

Today was also a big day for Senate Republicans. They knew that Henry Marsh would be at the inauguration today, and that the 20–20 split in the Senate would become a 20–19 split while Marsh was 100 miles north, among the throngs on the National Mall. So today was the day that they decided— without hearings, advertisements, notifications, or warnings— to take a chunk out of Marsh’s district, along with a handful of others, to ghettoize black voters in a majority-minority district and put 45% of voting-age citizens into new districts.

I sat in the Senate gallery, along with no more than perhaps a half-dozen other people, slack-jawed with confusion (tweeting all the while) as Republican Sen. John Watkins filibustered through the allotted 15 minutes to discuss what was advertised as the third reading of a pretty boring bill, making technical adjustments to district boundaries. Unbeknownst to anybody but the 20 Senate Republicans, the bill had been replaced with a radical redistricting, combining two senators into a single district (eliminating the district of 2009 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Creigh Deeds), reshuffling district boundaries throughout the state to absorb those changes (to Republicans’ apparent favor in a half-dozen districts), and creating a “black district.”

Senate Democrats tried repeatedly to get a word in, but they were blocked procedurally. A series of votes were held (votes about voting, votes about reconsidering voting about voting, and so on), all failing 20–19, during which a few people got to make remarks. One Democratic senator moved to simply put the vote off until tomorrow, so that there’d be time to read this brand-new bill. That vote failed 20–19. Another Democratic senator pointed out that this was simply unconstitutional (“[The] General Assembly shall reapportion the Commonwealth into electoral districts in accordance with this section in the year 2011 and every ten years thereafter”). One Republican senator insisted that this was simply a racially sensitive improvement, since it was establishing a majority-minority district. Another Republican said that there was no need to hold hearings on this new redistricting, because they held hearings a few years ago, last time they redistricted. Yet it remained unclear throughout what exactly this bill did, though Democrats were frantically trying to figure that out as they stalled with round after round of procedural votes, a peeved Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling presiding over the whole affair. Finally there was nothing else to be done— the vote was held, and the bill passed, 20–19.

Lt. Gov. Bolling says he would have voted against the bill, if it had been a tie. Which is surely why the bill was introduced today.

Senate Republicans’ MLK Day gift to Senator Marsh and to Virginia is to use the re-inauguration of the United States’ first black president as a cover to pass a bill that will make it harder for black candidates to get elected.

Now the bill goes to the House of Delegates, who will no doubt pass it, and then to Gov. Bob McDonnell, who said he was as surprised by this bill as everybody else. We’re about to learn if McDonnell has really become the centrist he claims to be, or if he’s the same old right-wing extremist. I fear we already know the answer.

Waldo Jaquith is the founder of and This essay first appeared on his blog,

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Anyone who read "Dominion of Memories" won't be surprised at this. Virginia (along with the rest of the Confederacy) has a long record of suppressing or diluting the votes of the 2/5ers, to ensure that majority rule devolves to the majority that counts not the actual majority of the state's population. If they (Virginia Republicans)could get away with it they'd restrict voting to white male property owners...America's original sin still holds sway. As Faulkner astutely observed: "The past isn't forgotten, it's not past" (sic). They probably are chuckling over the hat trick they pulled on that old dumb N&^%%r while he was off preening over the inauguration of "one of his homies".

Here's what Waldo Jaquith and Courteney Stewart don't want you to know, don't care about themselves, and will endeavor to keep you dumbed down about:

The democrats drew some extremely gerrymandred senate lines back when they were in control in early 2011. They were so thorough in their gerrymandering, that they managed to win 20 of 40 seats despite getting CRUSHED in the November 2011 election's popular vote 58% to 38%. This may have been the most stunning example of gerrymandered district lines since 1965.. Don't believe me? Find a more absurd result anywhere in the country since then!

If either of these people were actually honest or fair journalists, they would have included that in this article.

"We who fight for life are the abolitionists of the 21st. Century!"

Alveda King, niece of Christian pro life leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

Seannie -
1. The 2011 redistricting was hugely convoluted, but the state senate was given time to read and review the redistricting, in fact, the proposed map was in the news before the bill went to vote.

2. "Well, they did it too" is the excuse of a 6-year old


1. Perhaps monsieur Marsh should consider showing up for work on a work day when he only has to do so 5 weeks this year, and only on weekdays.

2. Correcting gerrymandered district lines and making them fairer and more representative is not childish -and that is exactly what is happening here.

I think the republicans played dirty pool here, and as someone who has personally dealt with a few senate democrats who I have great respect for - I too am sick of the endless partisan jousting (grudge) matches in Richmond. This certainly doesn't help. But if you want too see an example of statesmanship, see Bill Bolling's decision regarding what bills he would and would not vote on last year.

But the real story here is that Waldo and Courteney didn't care at all about gerrymandering when the democrats did it in 2011, so their pointless outrage now regarding same is irrelevant.